Missional: The Mercurial Shibboleth

Irreligious Thought #3: The whole “what/who is missional?” conversation is weird to me. Shouldn’t we pick words that have been around awhile to get worked up about?

Let me start by saying I am not interested in criticizing those who use the term ‘missional’ per se. They are too respected by me. Too many sincere. And far too many worthy of emulation. The kind of men and women I’d prefer to point to other than myself. Plus I have used the term and will continue to use the term.

But I do think the discussion about who/what is missional is weird. Strange. Off-kilter.

And not because we should not care about the things people say we should be doing in order to be ‘missional.’ I just think it is weird I am being asked to be missional at all.

There seems to be disagreement on the meaning of the term. All of us who use the term ‘Trinity’ should be fine with the use of words not found in the Scriptures to describe those things we see in the Scriptures. But people do not argue about the word ‘Trinity.’ It’s been around a while. So people argue about whether there is a Trinity or not.

But ‘missional’ is pretty new. And hip. No one was using this term when I was in Seminary 10 years ago. We talked about church-planting alot. And we talked about missions, evangelism, apologetics and mercy ministry. But the term was yet to be en vogue.  Now it is used without definition and argued over fairly regularly. And what is mind-boggling is how it is now a descriptor for faithfulness. This is where it gets weird for me and I have trouble understanding it at all.

We have this descriptor – missional. It means different things to different groups of people. It is a new term in the history of the church. It is a litmus test for others – “They are not missional, therefore they are not faithful.” Inevitably, there are arguments about not only who is and who is not missional but what the actual term means.

Let me say, perhaps it worth getting to the bottom of. The subject – regardless of the meaning of the term – has some significance. This is not what is weird about the whole thing. What is weird is that it seems possible the term will move out of usage before we even get a handle on it. It’s got a mercurial quality about it.

Let me add a few closing thoughts:

– First, is ‘missional’ replacing another term? Is there a synonym? Are we describing something which already existed and had a term to describe it or does the word reveal some innovation?

– Second, Maybe we should stop using ‘missional’ as a litmus test. I see no harm in describing your church or ministry as such. But using it to downgrade the faithfulness of others seems rather presumptive while such a new term still unfamiliar to large swaths of the global church. It’s mercurial quality demands this also.

– Third, the word has already become a shibboleth. If you say it with confidence, you are good to go in some circles. Do we really want to trade in words this way?

– Fourth, we may already be there, but the word will soon be marketable. In other words, it will be used to sell books, music, tickets, curriculum, etc. (Prediction: T-shirt with ‘Got Missional?’ on the front.) We need to stop and think.

None of this means, we should stop using it. I should not look down on those who use it. Again, I use the term. But I have to use it knowing it is not a term everyone gets. It certainly cannot be term I would argue over.

Here is the entire list of Irreligious Thoughts.

2 thoughts on “Missional: The Mercurial Shibboleth

  1. Jeremy February 8, 2011 / 10:56 pm

    Ed Stetzer has compiled a great series of posts on the term "missional" and it's development. http://www.edstetzer.com/the-meanings-of-missional.htmlI wonder for many if the term is being thrown around to replace old, "tired" words like evangelism that nobody wants to be a part of any more… but we really want to be "missional."

  2. kevin johnson July 18, 2011 / 3:54 pm

    From what I have learned recently, the opposite of missional is attractional. In my mind, there needs to be a balance between the two.

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